RIYADH — Reem Asaad finds it annoying to buy her bras and panties from a man. But she doesn’t have much choice in the matter.
Although Saudi Arabia has the strictest gender segregation in the world, only men are hired as sales staff in most retail stores.
“We have men selling g-strings in stores to women which doesn’t happen anywhere in the world,” said Asaad.
But the 37-year-old professor of finance and banking is even more frustrated that a three-year-old regulation permitting female sales clerks has not been implemented.
For now, that regulation is languishing in the proverbial bureaucratic bottom drawer, a vivid example of the barriers to women in the workplace put in place by an ultraconservative religious establishment opposed to women working outside the home.
Asaad has launched what she calls “a consumer protection campaign” to force Saudi retailers to follow the regulation, but is facing an uphill battle.
“The religious establishment is against the empowerment of women, period,” adds Asaad. “They would like to limit them from taking care of their own finances.”
The lingerie saga began in 2006 with regulation #120 from the Ministry of Labor stating that only female sales clerks should be employed in stores selling women’s products.
The ministry thought they could kill three birds with one stone. The change would help the ministry’s efforts to provide jobs for Saudi women. It would give women a more comfortable consumer experience. And since women would be selling to women, it would reduce the “mingling” of genders that religious leaders reject.
But things are not always that easy in Saudi Arabia and the fine print of the regulation was telling: In order to overcome the concerns of conservative religious folk, the regulation required physical restrictions at stores designed to shield the presence of women staff from the shopping public.
For example, lingerie stores with female clerks had to have partitions around them so men could not see inside. They had to be locked from the inside. And men, who now accompany their wives or sisters into lingerie stores, would not be allowed to enter.
For retailers, the restrictions were profit-killers.
Not only would partitions be costly to build, but also they would defeat the purpose of having windows: to entice shoppers into stores.
A few stores, mostly in the seaport town of Jeddah, have put up the required physical barriers and hired women. But the vast majority have not.
“It’s not implementable,” said Basmah Al Omair, executive director of the Khadijah Bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Center in Jeddah. “The private sector doesn’t have a problem hiring females. They just have a problem implementing the law as it exists. What we are asking for is that the doors be open, that men and women can come in as a family, and that windows not be obstructed.”
The private sector, she added, “cares about profit and at the end of the day if you’re going to lose profit by hiring female staff, you’re not going to do it.”
The new regulation does not promote the mixing of sexes, as some critics suggest, said Al Omair, adding: “We’ve had men selling to women for 30 years and we haven’t considered that mixing.”
Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith, former head of the religious police, formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, told Agence France-Presse in December that he does not oppose women sales personnel in lingerie stores.
But, he added, stores employing women had to be in malls restricted only to women.
"We don't reject the work of the women in lingerie stores if they are not next to men's stores," Gaith said.
Some Saudi women buy their lingerie online or when they go abroad. It’s not an easy situation for male sales staff either.
One 21-year-old Saudi man who works in a lingerie chain called “Women’s Secret” is too embarrassed to tell his friends.
“I swear before I took this job, I never even went into these stores with my sisters and family because I was too embarrassed and now I work in one,” he said.
“I told my buddies I am still unemployed and those of them who know I work think I work in a regular store,” he added. “I can’t allow anyone to see me in this store, it’s too embarrassing. I’d rather they think I’m unemployed.”
Salahuddin Younus, who works in the lingerie section of Debenhems, a large department store, said that after a year and a half, he has gotten used to dealing with customers, most of whom cover themselves head to toe, including their faces.
“Some customers say, ‘My breast is going down. I need to push up,’” said the salesman, who is from Bangladesh, grabbing a push-up bra from a rack.
Asaad began her campaign in July 2008 with a Facebook group. And in recent weeks, she’s taken it a step further by writing to leading retailers threatening to organize a boycott of their stores.
“It’s their job to follow the rules,” said Asaad, who lives in Jeddah and has an MBA from Boston’s Northeastern University. “I’m going to help in causing financial losses because I know this is the one thing that hurts. We are consumers and we have rights.”
Female columnist Abeer Mishkhas suggests that Asaad faces a huge obstacle. Her campaign “might end without a result, as she is not fighting a concrete law or body,” Mishkas wrote in the Arab News, a daily. “She and her supporters are up against a way of thinking that insists that women stay at home.”
Asaad is well aware of the challenges she faces, but for her the campaign is not just about getting female sales clerks in lingerie stores.
“What matters is that we are rising awareness that women can make things happen when they decide to take charge of their affairs,” she said. “That is the essence of this campaign.”
More GlobalPost dispatches by Caryle Murphy:
Saudi women's driving ban a burden for men, too
Winds of change blow over Saudi